Origins of the United World Challenge
We all have an “ocean” to cross: a challenge that seems too daunting to dare attempt.
Here’s how I found my own ocean and the courage to cross it. While your own ocean may not be literal, I hope this story may help inspire you to connect with your inner explorer in pursuit of your greatest dreams.
I was experiencing depression when a friend invited me to join him in a triathlon – it was my very first one.
Racing gave me a new love for life. Over the next 10 years I ran;
Became one of the youngest World Economic Forum delegates ever while building my first nonprofit
Moved to London to earn my MBA at London Business School and began competing in some of the UK’s most intense ultramarathons.
My father took his own life. To process his loss (and find joy in my own life), I signed up for the 2019 Atlantic Challenge rowing race
Moved to Colorado and began building the United World Challenge while working full-time as a management consultant.
After 3 years of dedicated prep, I failed to raise enough funds to participate in the Atlantic Challenge race. I was devasted.
I used my failure to forge a new mission - rowing solo from California to Hawaii in the summer of 2020.
Completed the 2,700-mile United World Challenge row to Hawaii. After 71 days at sea, I become the first and only person ever to solo row this route as their first ocean row
I took time to integrate the ocean’s lessons and reflect on what I learned. Then I began public speaking to share this story and inspire others.
I’m in full prep mode for our second expedition, working with sponsors, media and impact partners, and others to complete another record-setting journey beginning later this year.
Set a goal so big, you have to grow into the person who can achieve it.
Intro to Expedition 1:
California to Hawaii
A Glimpse into the 71-Day Saga
Stage 1: The Most Challenging Month of My Life
Day 1: Launch from California! July 3rd, 2020
The ocean has so much to teach me and I’m brand new to sea life. But I trust I will learn what I need to. I trust my training. I trust my team. I trust my path and I trust this moment.
Days 3 – 7:
I spend Days 3 through 7 strapped down to my bunk with a helmet on my head – like living inside a washing machine tumbling down a never-ending staircase. During the mayhem of the storm, a key part of my steering system breaks, my storage hatches flood, and water begins pooling in my stern cabin. I keep thinking, there’s no way I’ll make it to Hawaii.
Days 8 – 28:
Every day, doubts and demons rage inside me, shouting at me to go home before it’s too late. But I know I can choose to listen to my doubts or replace them with something else. So, I start to tell myself — out loud:
“I can quit, but not today.”
Stage 2: Turning Point
I get a wild idea of making new parts from scratch to repair the bolt that snapped in my rowing seat. My other repairs often lasted a day or less. And time is running out. The seat’s bearings are grinding to dust, and I don’t have spares. I get out my camp stove and began boiling strips of plastic, then shape them into new bearings, one by one. And as crazy as this idea is, it actually works! The new bearings last days, and I have enough plastic to make dozens more. Suddenly, a massive cloud lifts from my experience – I no longer had to MacGyver my seat – I just had to row!
From Day 45 onwards, although tendonitis, salt burns, and bone-deep fatigue are my closest companions, I love being at sea with all my heart. And most of all, it’s no longer a matter of if I would reach Hawaii – it becomes a matter of when.
Stage 3: Understanding Our Gem
Today brings two big milestones: 50 days at sea and 1,000 miles to Hawaii. I’m torn between pushing myself to see how far I can go each day, versus slowing down to savor every moment, because I know once this row is over, I’ll miss it.
The deep, vibrant blue beneath me, its waves adorned with white jewels from one horizon to the other. The soft, silky baby blue sky above me, hugging the world with a dreamy cradle of clouds. I can’t get over how many shades of blue this ocean creates. I sit in awe all day. I thought the challenge had been rowing across the ocean. Now I see, the true challenge is to embody it.
Day 71: Arrive in Hawaii! September 11th, 2020
Arriving is one of the hardest days in the whole trip. The heat feels so intense that I keep checking to make sure that I’m still sweating – a sign that I’m not in heat stroke. Then I begin repeating to myself, again and again: “My body is hot, but I am fine. I am rowing to the finish!” At first, it’s just a whisper. But slowly it grows into a full shout, and I pull on the oars while bursting, “I am rowing to the finish!” Finally, at 6pm after 36 hours of nonstop rowing, I arrive at Kaneohe Yacht Club – becoming the first person ever to successfully row solo from mainland USA to Hawaii as their first ocean row.
Expedition 1 Story Map
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Here’s a Boatload of Answers.
I answered a few FAQs just for you
Nope! I’m fully alone during expeditions. At times, the people nearest to me are in outer space aboard the International Space Station – 254 miles away from Earth!
In my first crossing I made radio contact with two enormous, rapidly approaching tankers to request they adjust course and not run me over (they kindly obliged). And I made a couple emergency satellite calls to troubleshoot issues with my team. But often I go weeks or months without seeing other boats or speaking with anyone else, although I talk to myself (and the ocean) constantly.
No, I bring everything I need for the entire expedition. Clothing, food, tools, medical supplies, sunblock, spare parts — it all gets planned in advance and carefully packed. I make a map of where key supplies are stored and share this with my land-based team, so if necessary, they can remind me where something’s stowed in the event of an emergency.
I use a desalinator, powered by my SunPower solar panels and my battery system to produce fresh drinking water straight from the ocean. My unit’s designed specifically for ocean rowboats and produces 5 gallons of water per hour. I also bring a manual desalinator in case of power issues, plus 50 gallons of emergency water, which I store in the lowest part of my hull to serve as ballast
I eat around 5,000 calories per day during an expedition. This consists of protein shakes, 2 or 3 dehydrated meals, energy bars, and snacks. I supplement meals and shakes with heaping tablespoons of coconut oil for extra fuel. Fitting the supplies on board isn’t an issue – but staying motivated to eat the same foods is. In my first expedition, I brought 500,000 calories – enough for 100 days or more – and although I had plenty of food left in my final week, I was going to bed hungry. I was just too tired of eating the limited variety of rations I brought (lesson learned)!
I use a clear Nalgene bottle for #1, so I can monitor color and volume, which helps me manage my hydration. I use a bucket for #2 – a method ocean rowers call “bucket and chuck-it.” Human waste goes overboard. Paper and wipes get stored for disposal on land.
Ocean rowboats are designed to self-right if they capsize. Some rowboat designs have occasional trouble self-righting, but my Spindrift S23 is incredibly stable. It never capsized in my first crossing, and because of its design and carbon fiber hull, I believe it’s one of – if not the – safest rowboats in the world.
Inside the “fore” cabin — the larger cabin behind my rowing seat — I have a small bunk with a thin cushion for a bed. In rough seas, I strap myself down to keep from crashing into cabin walls. And even on calmer days, I need to jam my knee underneath the electrical cabinet to prevent myself from rolling side-to-side. I might get 6 hours of sleep per night, but it’s not good rest, as my legs and core never stop working, and I’ll often wake through the night to check my drift using my GPS. If I discover I’m suddenly heading the wrong direction, I need to drag myself out of bed and begin rowing, no matter the time or how tired I might feel.
I hear you – I was a little surprised myself by how precisely I was able to arrive in Hawaii! Here’s the thing – there’s plenty of margin for error mid-crossing; if I drift 5 miles north overnight when I’m in the middle of the ocean, no worries – plenty of time to make up for that later. But when nearing land, I’m constantly adjusting course using my GPS to ensure I arrive as intended. That’s why I rowed the final 36 hours to Hawaii nonstop.
I lose weight and strength from the moment the expedition begins. Tendonitis creeps from my fingers up through my arms, and salt- and sun-sores burn my skin and make life exceptionally uncomfortable. Survival is a matter of managing the decline. Easy enough when feeling well, but when my mood is down, it impacts my body, too, as I might skip a meal or not tend to my skin as carefully as I should. Out on the sea for months, the connection between physical and mental health becomes even more obvious. Nonetheless, somehow my body acclimated, and as the weeks turned to months, I got used to rowing all day. Humans are incredibly adaptable – it’s our greatest strength!
There’s nothing more beautiful than the open ocean, and I’m honored to be able to share the ocean’s story with you. That’s worth every sacrifice. And there’s never been a more critical time to connect with our oceans. We must act now to protect and restore the oceans, because if we lose the oceans, we lose everything.
Ocean rowing is 100% mental and 100% physical. If either domain is underprepared, it puts the whole expedition at risk. To prepare my body I do 3-5 gym sessions per week — mostly weights and functional movement, with a small amount of rowing — and I aim to eat 4,000 calories per day to gain the weight that I lose at sea. But no matter how strong I might become, I still get tired from weeks of constant rowing. But that’s OK. It’s not tired arms that make a rower want to quit – it’s a broken spirit. That’s why the most important part of preparation is being clear on my purpose, so that when I want to quit, I can quickly remind myself why I’m here in the first place. Other ways I prepare my mind and spirit include going on meditation retreats, participating in a men’s group, and striving to be aware of my responses to life. Rather than let an event (or more likely, my reaction to it) sweep me away, I try to notice whatever emotion I’m experiencing, and then choose how I want to respond and what story I tell myself. Easier said than done! But this “training” is not only great for ocean rowing – it helps with any challenge.
I bring everything I need to handle any problem that might arise, and my physician and logistics teammates are available to help solve an issue at any hour. In the event I’m no longer able to physically row or it becomes unsafe to remain aboard, we have multiple options to coordinate a rescue. Typically, it involves the nearest vessel at sea diverting its course to pick me up. In case my boat becomes unsafe, I have my life raft and “go-bag” containing my passport, emergency rations, medical supplies, satellite phones, batteries, and my manual handheld watermaker stored on deck. These are within arm’s reach at all times.
9-10 hours on a typical day, although it varies. If I face a counter-current, I’ll row in shifts — 3 hours on, 2 hours off — around the clock to keep from going backwards. The start and finish are the most dangerous moments in an expedition, so I rowed 20 hours nonstop when I left California and 36 hours nonstop when I was landing in Hawaii.
Wind, waves, and currents near land are fickle and the margin for error is razor-thin. In addition, shipping lanes tend are more common and ship traffic denser near land. On the other hand, if the conditions are stronger than my ability to control the boat mid-ocean, that’s OK – I can deploy a “para-anchor” (an underwater parachute that stabilizes the boat) and wait it out. But when near land (i.e. typically at the start and end of a journey), a rower often can’t deploy the para-anchor due to shallower seas, plus higher risk of blowing towards land and crash-landing into a reef, a beach or other vessels. This means taking as few breaks as possible when beginning and finishing an expedition.
Whales, dolphins, fish, squid, and lots of birds. The ocean is covered in birds! Sadly, I only saw 3 sharks in Expedition 1. Sharks are critical to healthy ecosystems, and their absence is a sign that oceans are in rapid decline. We’ve lost 71% of shark populations since 1970.
I saw plastic every day in the final month of Expedition 1. Any time I looked at the water I saw pieces of plastic debris. Occasionally I saw intact household items like shoes, bottles, rope, string, PVC pipe, and toothbrushes — and LOTS of “ghost” fishing nets and buoys, which fishing vessels often discard at sea. And all this breaks down into microplastics, which made the ocean appear cloudy. For this reason, scientists often refer to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as more like a “soup” or “smog” than an “island.”
The solution is to prevent the plastic from arriving at sea in the first place. The notion of collecting plastic from the middle of the ocean is a farce (although it has been effective at raising awareness). Only 1% of ocean plastic is at the surface; 10% suspended in the water column; and 89% is missing – it either sinks to the ocean floor, is consumed by sea life, or becomes airborne – a hypothesis my partners at Scripps Institution of Oceanography aim to test with the data I collect at sea. To solve ocean plastics, we need to use and consume as little plastic as possible, and properly recycle or dispose what we do use. As of 2022, only 6% of plastics in the USA are recycled.
Due to pandemic lockdowns in spring 2020, I only had time for 3 days of training and about 20 miles total in my boat before my expedition began. It was enough to learn the basics, and I learned the rest at sea. It’s not a recommended approach, but my mental and physical prep – as well as my amazing team – made it possible. Goes to show, sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith.
What inspires the United World Challenge?
Every second breath we take comes from the ocean.
The oceans are our planet’s life support system. In addition to providing immeasurable cultural and natural value, the ocean provides critical services that keep us all alive.
Healthy oceans are fundamental to a prosperous and safe future.
We depend on the oceans for our very survival and they’re threatened now more than ever before. To ensure our future, it’s time we do something to protect the oceans.
It’s not too late to save the oceans, but time is running short. We need to act now – and the United World Challenge is here to help.
Although we have a stellar team, we’re not able to save the oceans on our own. That’s where you come in.
Interested in getting involved with Expedition 2?
Sponsorship is more than just a good story. It’s about pursuing a vision greater than the sum of the parts. It’s about making impact neither partner could achieve alone.
In short, it’s about crossing oceans together.